The Wisdom of a River Rat

September 7, 2023
TP reading to guests from a book

By: Justin Malloy

“We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats…are chafing each other, as they are tossed by the fretful river. We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried. . . the sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we are but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.” –John W. Powell, 1869

TP reading from a book

The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons – J.W. Powell

As a river guide and a romantic, this passage resonates with me as an apt and poetic metaphor for the human condition. I find its meaning to be grounding, almost like a mantra. Here we are, floating along in a chaotic world and navigating life’s obstacles as best we can. The beauty and grandeur of the planet amazes but also reminds us of our humility and infinite smallness. We are little specks in the universe who have no idea what the future holds for us. In a way, I find peace in that sentiment. If I could succinctly capture the essence of his words and relieve their heavy tone with some humor, I would use it as a daily mantra, though I still love the passage all the same.

However, I imagine when Powell wrote it he was gravely serious and didn’t think the river rats of the future would be reading it as inspirational over 100 years later. After all, at the time of writing he was in a battle for survival in a place where, these days, we head to for vacation. He probably never imagined anyone proudly identifying as a “river rat”, or have any idea what that would mean. The truth is not lost on me that, in no small part, do we owe the privilege of enjoying the rivers and canyons as we do today to Powell’s explorations.

Off the river, in the midst of my day-to-day life, I find I am very “zoomed in” and relatively small frustrations will hold the weight of the world. The passing rudeness of a stranger, a sudden setback on a project, an approaching deadline at work, the sadness of the daily news, or details of a difficult conversation I had are the sorts of things that weigh heavy on me. Combine enough of these moments and anxieties together and suddenly I lose my sense of place in the universe.

This is when I remind myself to “zoom out”. If I’m overwhelmed with the details of daily life, remembering that I am a speck lost among the boulders can be refreshing. If I can’t get on the river to find this peace, I can read passages such as Powell’s to temporarily achieve a similar feeling. The only thing missing, really, is a little bit of humor. After all, when confronted with truths of the human condition, laughter is a pretty appropriate response.butt pigmy chairs

This is where our friend and mentor Tim Porten comes in. I cannot say enough about this man to do him justice. Tim possessed a wealth of knowledge, a deep passion for the river, and a quick, dry wit. He went on more Holiday trips as a guest than anyone else has in our history, and he had many traditions, trinkets, and tales he would bring along with him. One of his most infamous river items was the Holiday coffee mug that he never, ever washed, striving for the perfect patina of dark roast java. Another was his wooden camp chair, on the backrest of which had the words “BUTT PYGMY” spelled out with stickers.

I had seen this chair many times before I thought to ask what a “butt pygmy” was. I had read Powell’s book as a young guide, but his words didn’t resonate with me as they do now, and I failed to make the connection to this funny combination of words on Tim’s chair. When I finally asked him about it, he responded by reciting Powell’s passage from memory, emphasizing the line “We are BUTT PYGMIES, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders…” which of course elicited a burst of laughter. The image of tiny butts with legs running along the beach was, and still is, hilarious.

I didn’t receive further explanation, and I didn’t need it. I had found my daily mantra: “We are butt pygmies.” For me, it serves as a reminder not to sweat the small stuff, to appreciate the beautiful world we live in, to accept that which we cannot change, and most importantly, to laugh. I like to think Tim reminded himself of this every time he set his chair up at camp and stuck his toes in the sand. Like Powell before him, I doubt he had any idea of the immense impact he would have on future generations of river rats, and I wish we could show him the figurative patina of influence he left on all of us.

Thank you, Tim. We miss you more every day.

Justin Malloy Writer

Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.